This conversation is the tenth in the series, Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places.

Lisa Guenther, a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University, holds a reading group in Riverbend maximum security prison in Nashville for inmates and joined by graduate students. Along with intellectual work inside, group members organize campus and community events outside drawing public attention to the prison experience. We talked recently about how engaging with inmates in something as simple as a reading group can have widespread ripple effects: on practicing philosophy and the humanities more generally, on closed-off institutions like prisons and universities, and on communities affected by both crime and mass incarceration. We begin with Lisa Guenther explaining how she came to work with death row inmates.

Socrates on Death Row

It started when I was working on issues of mass incarceration and solitary confinement as a scholar. At a certain point, I felt I could not really do this in isolation, away from the places where these issues are unfolding. About four years ago at a Levinas conference, I met Steve Shankman, who taught Levinas in an Inside-Out class in Oregon. I said, “What, you can do that?”

So I connected with someone who teaches Inside-Out in Nashville, and attended a Belmont University Sociology class on restorative justice at a minimum-security prison there. After a semester I volunteered to facilitate a philosophy discussion group at the minimum-security prison. But the Tennessee Department of Corrections shut that prison down from one day to the next due to an escape attempt. So my Inside-Out contact said, “We are starting programming in unit two at Riverbend [the death row unit], would you do your discussion group there?” I thought, “Wow, my experience in prison is basically three months in a minimum-security prison with no responsibilities, as a student, and now will I plunge into the deep end?” So I did it.

Then I looked to find a community at Vanderbilt among faculty and students and there was a lot of interest from graduate students. I still have very little luck convincing any faculty members to get involved. I have a few ideas why, but I am not sure exactly what the barriers are. In any case, that is how we started out: from my philosophical research, to a philosophy discussion group, to a discussion group on death row.


Albert Dzur: Can you tell me more about what you do in the prison?

Lisa Guenther: For the past three years, I have been going to the Riverbend maximum-security prison here in Nashville every week with a group of graduate students. It is a rotating group, usually about five or six people—that is as much as the prison will allow—and we meet with men currently on death row. They have been there for an average of 18 years. The person there the longest has been on death row for something like 32 years; the youngest person, maybe 40, has been on death row for around 15 years. 

We meet every week and talk about books. It started out strictly as a philosophy discussion group. But it quickly morphed as we got to know each other and started to figure out group dynamics and what people were interested in. It shifted into more of a social justice discussion group. We also work on projects. We work in sub-committees on issues that are important to the people inside. Our current format is to have readings we collectively decide on scheduled at the beginning of the semester and alternate reading days for sub-committees on domestic violence, the school to prison pipeline, prison medical care, and death penalty law. The sub-committees work autonomously on readings: sometimes writing something together, sometimes making connections with groups within the community already doing that work. We call ourselves “R.E.A.C.H. Coalition” (Reciprocal Education and Community Healing on Tennessee’s Death Row).

AD: What books or readings have really worked in your group?

LG: Plato’s dialogues on the trial, incarceration, and execution of Socrates worked really well. And that was a suggestion from one of the insiders. When we initially went in I had already ordered a bunch of copies of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, based on my conversations with insiders at the minimum-security prison. The way I had structured the course—before meeting these guys on death row and having the other prisoners in mind—was to study The New Jim Crow and then ask what a new civil rights movement would look like. And we could also study some texts from the civil rights movement in the ’50s and ’60s. The switch from minimum-security prison to death row happened within three weeks, so I had all these books, and I thought, “OK, I have no idea what people on death row want to talk about. It is probably not the war on drugs, but I will just bring it in and we will start the conversation from there.” 

I was right about that, basically, although not for the reasons that I assumed. The guys inside were very open, patient, and interested to see what we wanted to talk about, to figure out together what would be productive for both the insiders and the outsiders. So at one point, maybe a month or two into the meetings one of the guys said, “You know, we already know a lot about prison, and maybe you don’t know anything about prison and that would be great for you to study, but we want to know about philosophy; we want to know about something we do not live every day.” And so, it was out of that that the suggestion to read Plato came up.

AD: So this would be the Apologia and the Crito?

LG: Yes, and also the Phaedo.

AD: What interested them in these readings? Let’s start with the trial dialogue.

LG: That was by far the most successful and interesting for them, because they have been through so many trials themselves. Not just the trial that convicted them, but then when you are on death row you have constant post-conviction hearings. And you do not get to speak at your own trial, generally. Very rarely would a death row person, either facing a death sentence or doing post-conviction litigation, ever be brought to a stand. They were interested in Socrates’ arguments, in the fierce way he defended himself, in the dramatic situation, but also the content of his argument. One man said, “I need to get my lawyer to read this, because he could take a lot of notes from Socrates”—meaning his rhetoric as well as the reasoning itself.

And then when we read the Crito, people were really disappointed. Everyone was disgusted with Socrates.

[The inmates] have so little confidence in democratic institutions. . . so little confidence that our system even has strong principles to be held accountable to.

AD: Yes, how could he accept what he had proved to be unjust? Beginning with the very offense he is charged with, Socrates has shown in the Apologia that his trial—and indeed the trial process itself—is a sham, and yet in the Crito he accepts the laws of Athens that make such trials possible.

LG: Exactly. Then, when we read the Phaedo, people were split. Some argued that Socrates had found a way of escaping from prison on his own terms: they can kill my body but they cannot destroy my soul. So he transcended the prison. And others just thought, “No, you may have all these theories to try and convince your friends and yourself that you have escaped and transcended and you still have your integrity, but you lost it in the Crito and all these fancy words are not going to bring it back.”

This type of discussion also helped to mediate the situation so we were not talking about prison in a stark direct way. Working in prisons can easily turn into a voyeuristic situation where the insiders are expected to be experts on suffering in prison and the outsiders, who know nothing about prison, go to them to be educated. Weird power dynamics can unfold in a situation where you bring together people who often have very different economic, racial, gender, and social positions and also different levels of formal education. Everything we do is about negotiating that terrain and trying to create and recreate the space for meaningful conversation through and across these chasms of social inequality. You cannot undo inequality by just having the best intentions to treat everyone as a singular human being.

Plato helped in ways I had not anticipated to open up a situation where we have a third term in the room. We all had the character of Socrates to look at and to talk about and we could bring different insights or different perspectives to bear on that third term.

AD: Did the theme of Socrates and public opinion come up at all? He embarrasses the democratic institutions of Athens in the trial. One can extend that argument to the Crito and say that one reason he accepted his fate so readily is to show the democratic institutions to be unjust. Did that theme come up?

LG: That definitely came up. Most of the outsiders teach Introduction to Philosophy as part of our job at Vanderbilt. We teach the Apologia and Crito on a regular basis. So the outsiders were marshaling the arguments we would normally bring up in class: the way Socrates addresses the laws, everything he says about the fatherland, how these laws raised him up and so he cannot betray them now even if the people have decided against him. He still thinks it is unjust, but he is going to practice a form of civil disobedience. Socrates is going to dramatically hold accountable those people who are applying those laws in an unjust way.

The insiders do not buy that for one second. No one inside thought that was a compelling argument. They pretty passionately felt that if you know you are being screwed by the courts, you should not go along with that. Part of it is that even if people are reading about Socrates 2,000 years later and are outraged about the injustice against him, their situation is different. We talked about that and went back and forth about what this particular trial, this particular injustice, this text by Plato is dramatizing, about what rational arguments it opens up and what these arguments mean for us now.

The sense I got from the conversation was that they have so little confidence in democratic practices and institutions today that it is unthinkable that you could take this stand where you would be challenging the system to be accountable to its own principles. And I think they had very little confidence that our system even had strong principles to be held accountable to.

AD: This idea of sacrificing oneself to make the institutions better just did not resonate with them.

LG: Yes, that is just not an option for them.

AD: What other things happened that you would have not predicted when you started?

LG: There are so many things. When we started this, I definitely did not predict that we would go in the direction we have, which is not just social justice theory, but also social justice practice. I underestimated the degree to which it would change my life completely—my philosophical focus but also my practice as a philosophy professor. I do things completely differently now in so many ways. It helps that I got tenure about a year after starting this work, so I could experiment with different forms of writing and different ways of investing my energy that would have been more difficult, or would have required a lot more courage, without it. I write more blogs and I write for a public (and a counterpublic) rather than a narrowly academic audience. I now approach philosophy as a radical democratic practice of collective sense-making. I am involved in activist work beyond the university in a way that I never thought I would have time for—and I am not convinced that I do have time for!

AD: Can you point to anything in particular that made you think, “You know, I have got to do something other than publish in fairly rarified journals?”

LG: Well, part of it is that all these guys are condemned to death. From the first time I met them, and even before, as I was preparing for our first encounter, I knew it was going to be really intense and was unsure what the effects would be on my whole world. The fact that they are condemned to death and they are amazing people gives a certain urgency to our work; and yet, there is also a strong imperative not to rush or to gloss over issues like racism, sexism, and class inequality because any effective work demands everyday practices of social justice, especially in our meetings. We have developed a model for sharing power in our meetings that is, on the one hand very particular to the concrete issues that we have stumbled into, and on the other hand is also an open and transferable form for others to use.

AD: Your experience in the prison seems like a sieve where you come out recognizing, “Oh, these are the important things.” Your priorities are recalibrated in a way they would not be by, say, attending an academic conference.

LG: Yes, it is absolutely the case that the discussion group has been this sieve that discloses the important things. But, it is not necessarily that the filtering process or what you end up identifying as important is totally different from what happens at a conference. In fact, I approach conferences in a completely different way now. One thing I have learned from this discussion group is not to get caught up in petty bullshit. So much happens in academia that is merely about power-grabbing, petty fights, and bruised egos. I feel I have a better perspective to filter out what is not important and to focus on what is.

What is important is not necessarily the political ideas that seem obviously applicable vs. merely abstract pure philosophy. Through my engagement with R.E.A.C.H. Coalition, I have reconnected to the reason why I was interested in doing philosophy in the first place. Certain issues matter, and it also matters if you think well and clearly about them or not. Ideas are very powerful in helping you navigate tricky situations. I specialize in phenomenology, feminism, and more contemporary twentieth century French philosophy. It can be very abstract and not seem to have much relationship to concrete and practical political questions. But I have found real resonance between my political and pedagogical practice in the prison and, say, reading Heidegger; doing philosophy that may be very abstract also really speaks to me as a thinker in this context. Bringing that practice and that high theory together has been an exciting possibility raised by this group.

Now, having said that, we have constant debates about theory and practice: “We have talked about this enough. Let us do something about it.” It is not like we are all on the same page or we all agree about the relevance of abstract philosophical thinking to anything we do. But for me, personally, that has really been a gift of this discussion group. It has reconnected me to classic philosophical texts in a new way.

AD: A prison like Riverbend is a closed off place. I wonder if you see your work as opening it up a little bit?

LG: Yes, I think so, and yet we proceed with the constant threat of being shut down. It is worth noting that universities are very closed institutions too.

AD: Yes they are.

LG: I see my work in the prison as trying to open up the university to a more engaged practice of the humanities and a more meaningful connection with the public, not just as a potential audience for our pearls of wisdom, but as a space for radical democratic engagement about ideas and issues that matter. The challenge to talk about very abstract and complex ideas in a clear way—that was the immediate challenge in the prison. You have to get away from academic insider talk or jargon; otherwise, you are just an asshole with a Ph.D. coming in to show off and confuse people. The challenge of speaking clearly about complex ideas and listening to the way other people have worked through those ideas themselves, often with completely different perspectives, is a skill that I am learning in the prison and that I try to bring back to the university and to my life more generally. It helps integrate what I do in the university, what I do in the prison, and what I do elsewhere. So, yes, I see what we do as opening up spaces in the prison, but I also think it is a reciprocal process.

AD: To hone in on the prison, I can see how their involvement in the reading group would contribute to the experience of the inmates who are members. Have you seen it have broader ramifications within the institution?

LG: The death row unit in Tennessee is a bit different from others in the sense that the prisoners are not all in solitary confinement. In Texas, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and in many other states, as far as I understand it, prisoners on death row are in their cells 23.5 hours a day and they do not have any programing. Why would you waste resources—even volunteer resources—on someone you intend to kill? This argument comes up at Riverbend, too, but when we started we had a supportive warden who believed in programming. It was not just because he had a big heart, but also because it makes practical sense: you get free labor, privileges that can be taken away, and activities to keep people busy and funnel their energy.

My work in the prison is trying to open up the university to an engaged practice of the humanities and a meaningful connection with the public.

AD: So you are helping people braid intellectual lanyards.

LG: Yes, exactly. This is the whole question that we outsiders started to ask ourselves as soon as we got in. What work are we doing for the prison unintentionally and what do we make of that? To what extent are we willing to be complicit in the prison system? Our conversations are all critical of this.

We started out with two groups: our philosophy group, and also a community building and conflict resolution group that was organized by the Inside-Out coordinator. Within a year we had expanded because we had a few events to raise awareness of the death penalty. We had an art show, for example, where art from the guys in our group was exhibited in a gallery on the Vanderbilt campus. Through that, we got other people interested and involved in doing a visual arts group and a creative writing group. So now we have four groups, which multiplies the possibilities people on the inside have to get involved and exponentially expands their community and the different ways they have access to the outside.

AD: These are four separate groups of outsiders coming in and doing various things in the prison’s death row unit?

LG: That is right. The Inside-Out coordinator has also been running a class and a think tank in unit six, which is part of the maximum-security prison, but it is not death row. So people are out of their cells for most the day. In addition, Vanderbilt divinity school graduate classes on the Inside-Out model take place every semester in unit six. The outside students get credit for those classes as Vanderbilt divinity school graduate students and the inside students earn points toward their parole hearings. Though, many of these guys are serving life sentences, which in Tennessee are fifty-one years minimum without the possibility of parole, or life without parole.

AD: You mentioned you had been thinking in a radical democratic way about this work. It seems like the elephant in the room, from a radical democratic perspective, is the general public. How does a radical democrat go about reaching people outside who would rather just look away from prisons and prison life?

LG: This is a huge question for us. A mainstream organization, Tenneseans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty (TADP), is already doing the work of talking to senators, church leaders, and other influential people. Our group is focusing more on building a grass roots movement that makes connections between the death penalty, domestic violence, mass incarceration, health care, and other broad social issues. We are not really working at the level of electoral politics, but rather at the level of the demos understood as people with socially situated, broad, intersectional concerns.

We are making connections with groups focused on homelessness, poverty and immigration, food justice, and health justice. They are not working directly on the death penalty, but their organizational structures are at least inspired by radical democratic traditions. We have lots of different public events. The visual arts group, for example, has had four different art shows, and they are all political in some way. A show last year, called “Gift” was amazing. The guys inside made a whole bunch of stuff to be taken away by whoever came to the show. They had a fish bowl with a bunch of different challenges. Whoever took a gift was encouraged to take a challenge, which would be something like, “volunteer for a day at a homeless shelter,” or “call your mother” and things like that. This would be your way to respond, to reciprocate by carrying it forward. Our groups do things that are very political, on the one hand, but do not have the explicit message like “abolish the prison-industrial complex.”

We have to be careful, though, not to ruin it by pushing the limits of our access to the prison in a way that could threaten other people’s access—either people on the inside who have access to visitors or people on the outside who have access to groups inside the prison. We developed another organization, Tennessee Students and Educators for Social Justice, which does not have any formal relationship to the people inside the prison, but has organized death penalty teach-ins. We organized a rally, and we just started a blog series writing about prison issues. 

AD: And this threads in with your misgivings about making the prison a better place. We have four groups that clearly open up the prison and provide inmates possibilities they would not have otherwise. Fine, but from the radical democratic perspective making prisons better cannot be the end of the story. You have to somehow agitate, engage, and break through to a public that has been sleep walking through this problem of mass incarceration: America locks up a greater percentage of its citizens than any other country.

LG: Yes, definitely. That is something we wrestle with every week, and I think about it nearly every day. One of the reasons we alternate between reading and subcommittee work is to develop a kind of activist practice within the group focused on issues identified by the insiders as of central importance. One of the extraordinary things to me is that abolishing the death penalty was definitely not first on their list. The issues everyone agrees are the most important are medical care—or lack thereof—and the school-to-prison pipeline. They are interested in broad-based social transformations so kids will not be funneled into the prison system, not end up in the place they are.

We do not want to just go in and make the prison a slightly more bearable place, but we are going to work with and consult with people inside to make a concerted collective effort to change social structures and agitate on the outside. 

This conversation is the tenth in the series, Trench Democracy: Participatory Innovation in Unlikely Places. Innovative democratic professionals are recreating some of our most fundamental institutions, shaping new democratic practices and struggling against the sometimes profoundly counter-democratic tendencies of contemporary American institutions. While their work is always in progress, their experiences hold value for anyone interested in democracy’s future.